Freedom in the World 2013 - Hong Kong


In March 2012, a limited election committee chose Leung Chun-ying as Hong Kong’s new chief executive after an unusually turbulent race in which Beijing switched its support to Leung from another candidate. Pro-Beijing parties maintained their dominance following Legislative Council elections in September, though prodemocracy parties won a majority of the seats elected by popular vote. A series of large protests during the year reflected growing public frustration over the central authorities’ meddling in the territory’s politics, the unrepresentative nature of the electoral system, and government efforts to introduce a pro-Beijing school curriculum. Meanwhile, journalists faced increasing government restrictions on access to information and unusual violent attacks on media offices.

Hong Kong Island was ceded in perpetuity to Britain in 1842; adjacent territories were subsequently added, and the last section was leased to Britain in 1898 for a period of 99 years. In the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, London agreed to restore the entire colony to China in 1997. In return, Beijing—under its “one country, two systems” formula—pledged to maintain the enclave’s legal, political, and economic autonomy for 50 years.

Under the 1984 agreement, a constitution for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, known as the Basic Law, took effect in 1997. The Basic Law stated that universal suffrage was the “ultimate aim” for Hong Kong, but it initially allowed direct elections for only 18 of 60 seats in the Legislative Council (Legco), and provided for the gradual expansion of elected seats over the subsequent years. After China took control, it temporarily suspended the Legco and installed a provisional legislature that repealed or tightened several civil liberties laws during its 10-month tenure.

Tung Chee-hwa was chosen as Hong Kong’s chief executive by a Beijing-organized election committee in 1997, and his popularity waned as the central government became increasingly involved in Hong Kong’s affairs, raising fears that civic freedoms would be compromised. Officials were forced to withdraw a restrictive antisubversion bill after it sparked mass protests in July 2003.

In 2005, with two years left to serve, the deeply unpopular Tung resigned. He was replaced by career civil servant Donald Tsang, and China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) decided that Tsang would serve out the remainder of Tung’s term before facing election. Tsang won a new term as chief executive in 2007, garnering 82 percent of the votes in the mostly pro-Beijing election committee. Meanwhile, pro-Beijing parties retained control of the Legco in elections held in 2004 and 2008, though few of their members were elected by popular vote. Most won seats determined by elite “functional constituency” voters.

In March 2012, the election committee chose Leung Chun-ying, a member of a mainland government advisory body, as the new chief executive. He won 689 of the 1,050 valid votes cast following an usually competitive race against two other candidates—Henry Tang, a high-ranking Hong Kong civil servant who took 285 votes, and Democratic Party leader Albert Ho, who secured 76. Tang was initially Beijing’s preferred candidate, but after his popularity fell due to a series of scandals, the central government switched its backing to Leung. Officials from China’s Liaison Office reportedly lobbied members of the election committee to vote for Leung and castigated media outlets for critical coverage of him. Leung took office in July. During the Legco elections in September, which drew a high turnout of 53 percent, pro-Beijing parties won 43 seats, while prodemocracy parties took 27, enabling them to retain a veto on constitutional changes.

Hong Kong residents staged several large-scale demonstrations during the year, reflecting dissatisfaction with the government, concerns over Beijing’s growing interference in Hong Kong affairs, and objections to a proposed school curriculum that allegedly promoted loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A series of corruption revelations involving Tsang and powerful tycoons contributed to public frustrations. In April, Tsang survived a vote of no confidence in the Legco—the first such vote brought against a leader since the handover to China in 1997.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Hong Kong’s Basic Law calls for the election of a chief executive and a unicameral Legislative Council (Legco). Under electoral reforms adopted in 2010, the chief executive, who serves a five-year term, is chosen by a 1,200-member election committee: some 200,000 “functional constituency” voters—representatives of various elite business and social sectors, many with close ties to Beijing—elect 900 of the committee’s members, and the remaining 300 consist of Legco members, Hong Kong delegates to the NPC, religious representatives, and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body to the NPC.

In keeping with the 2010 amendments to the Basic Law, the Legco added 10 seats in 2012. Thirty members are still chosen by the functional constituency voters, and 35—up from 30—are chosen through direct elections in five geographical constituencies. For the five remaining seats, members of Hong Kong’s 18 district councils nominate candidates from among themselves, who then face a full popular vote. All 70 members serve four-year terms. The Basic Law restricts the Legco’s lawmaking powers, prohibiting legislators from introducing bills that would affect Hong Kong’s public spending, governmental operations, or political structure.

The NPC ruled in 2007 that universal suffrage might be adopted in 2017 for the chief executive election and 2020 for the Legco. The issue’s omission from the 2010 electoral reforms heightened fears that the transition would be pushed further into the future.

In the territory’s multiparty system, over a dozen factions won Legco seats in 2012. They included the prodemocracy Civic Party and Democratic Party and the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. The CCP is not formally registered in Hong Kong but exercises considerable influence. Pro-Beijing parties maintained their dominance by capturing 43 seats, though only 17 of those were directly elected. The prodemocracy camp took the remainder. Due to splits in the prodemocracy camp over the compromise behind the 2010 reform package, the long-established Democratic Party lost three seats, leading to the resignation of party chairman Albert Ho.

Hong Kong is generally regarded as having low rates of corruption, though business interests exercise a strong influence in the Legco and executive branch. A series of high-profile cases in 2012 contributed to growing public concerns about corruption. Outgoing chief executive Donald Tsang was placed under investigation by the territory’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in February for allegedly accepting private trips and favors from Chinese businessmen; the probe was ongoing at year’s end. Billionaire property developers Thomas and Raymond Kwok were arrested in March and charged in July with paying bribes in exchange for information on land sales. Rafael Hui, formerly Hong Kong’s second-ranked executive official, was also charged in the case. Separately in July, the ICAC arrested development minister Mak Chai-kwong and assistant highways department director Tsang King-man for alleged abuse of government housing allowances.

Also during 2012, the ICAC continued to prosecute dozens of suspects in connection with vote rigging in the November 2011 district council elections, after prodemocracy legislators reported instances of voters registering under false or nonexistent addresses. In November 2012, the Court of Final Appeal defended the ICAC’s strong investigative powers, ruling that it had the right to compel information during an investigation despite the potential for self-incrimination by witnesses. Hong Kong was ranked 14 out of 176 polities surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Under Article 27 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong residents enjoy freedoms of speech, press, and publication. These rights are generally respected in practice, and political debate is vigorous. There are dozens of daily newspapers, and residents have access to international radio broadcasts and satellite television. Foreign media operate without interference. However, political and economic pressures have narrowed the space for free expression. A 2012 poll conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) found that for the first time, journalists’ concerns about tighter government control over access to information surpassed self-censorship as the most commonly cited threat to media freedom. Over the past two years, officials have increasingly used off-the-record briefings to announce policies and released official footage for news events rather than opening them to the press, while the police and fire departments have released less detailed and timely information about newsworthy incidents.

Direct or indirect efforts by Beijing to interfere in reporting on internal Hong Kong politics appeared to increase in 2012. During the run-up to the chief executive election in March, the central government’s Liaison Office reportedly contacted newspapers and rebuked them for articles that were critical of Leung Chun-ying, its preferred candidate. Self-censorship by outlets aiming to please Beijing is also a problem. A political commentator with Sing Pao Daily News had his column discontinued after he complained that one of his articles had been altered to imply support for Leung and later submitted a column on the death of an exiled Chinese democracy advocate. Several media owners are current or former members of the NPC or CPPCC, and many have significant business interests in mainland China. In January, Wang Xiangwei, a mainlander who had once worked for the state-run China Daily, became the editor in chief of the popular local English-language paper South China Morning Post. He was accused of censoring the Post’s coverage of the suspicious death of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang in June, and of refusing to renew a contract with an award-winning reporter known for his articles about Beijing’s poor human rights record.

Violence against journalists is rare in Hong Kong, though several cases were reported in 2012. In August, the office of a citizen journalism website was raided and vandalized by four masked men. Also that month, a stolen car was rammed into the headquarters of Sing Tao News Corporation. Several men wielding axes attacked the company’s branch office in southern Kowloon in September. The motives for the attacks were unclear, though organized crime involvement was suspected in the Sing Tao incidents. Two journalists were assaulted by participants in a progovernment rally in December. During a visit by Chinese president Hu Jintao in June, a journalist from Apple Daily was briefly detained after yelling out a question regarding the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Hong Kong journalists aiming to report from the mainland must obtain press cards from Beijing’s Liaison Office, though even with accreditation, they are often subject to surveillance, threats, beatings, and occasional detention by mainland authorities.

The Basic Law provides for freedom of religion, which is generally respected in practice. Religious groups are excluded from the Societies Ordinance, which requires nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register with the government. Adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is persecuted on the mainland, remain free to practice and hold occasional demonstrations, though government pressure on them to remove banners from public places has increased in recent years. In 2012, an apparently Beijing-linked association began mounting aggressive anti–Falun Gong banner campaigns that often involved verbal abuse, sparking complaints from activists and legislators that the Hong Kong authorities were not enforcing laws protecting religious freedom.

University professors can write and lecture freely, and political debate on campuses is lively, though a number of incidents in 2012 suggested growing threats to Hong Kong’s academic freedom. The director of the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme, known for its politically sensitive polls, was criticized in more than 80 articles and commentaries in pro-Beijing newspapers early in the year. A political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was also singled out for criticism in the papers.

The Basic Law guarantees freedoms of assembly and association. Police permits for demonstrations are required but rarely denied, and protests on politically sensitive issues are held regularly. In 2012, the territory experienced especially large protests against the Chinese government. The annual June 4 vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre drew at least 113,000 people, nearly double the 2011 attendance, with a fifth reportedly coming from mainland China, where such activities are banned. Other major demonstrations were held during the year to protest the suspicious death of mainland activist Li Wangyang; the inauguration of Leung as chief executive, which coincided with the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China; and a proposed school curriculum with pro-Beijing themes, which was subsequently shelved. At least three mainlanders were beaten or sentenced to labor camps after returning home from the July 1 protest in Hong Kong, the first such known cases of mainlanders punished for attending Hong Kong demonstrations.

In recent years, Hong Kong authorities have demonstrated reduced respect for freedom of assembly. Restrictions on protests near Beijing’s Liaison Office, aggressive use of pepper spray, and the rate of arrests at demonstrations have all reportedly increased. Moreover, those arrested are more likely to face serious charges; 45 people were prosecuted under the Public Order Ordinance in 2011 alone, compared with a total of 39 from 1997 to 2010.

Hong Kong hosts a vibrant and largely unfettered NGO sector, and trade unions are independent. However, there is limited legal protection for basic labor rights. Collective-bargaining rights are not recognized, protections against antiunion discrimination are weak, and there are few regulations on working hours.

The judiciary is independent, and the trial process is generally fair. The NPC reserves the right to make final interpretations of the Basic Law, effectively limiting the power of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, the territory’s highest court. In October 2012, Kemal Bokhary stepped down as a permanent judge on the Court of Final Appeal after more than 15 years in office, having reached the mandatory retirement age. The government declined to extend his term of service, but gave his position to a judge nine months older. Amid a public outcry, Bokhary said he believed the extension was rejected because his judgments were too liberal.

Police are forbidden by law to employ torture and other forms of abuse. They generally respect this ban in practice, and complaints of abuse are investigated. Arbitrary arrest and detention are illegal; suspects must be charged within 48 hours of their arrest. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.

Citizens are treated equally under the law, though Hong Kong’s 300,000 foreign household workers remain vulnerable to abuse, and South Asians routinely complain of discrimination in employment. Since foreign workers face deportation if dismissed, many are reluctant to bring complaints against employers. The independent Equal Opportunities Commission, tasked with enforcing a 2009 ordinance against racial discrimination, has been criticized for excluding discrimination through government actions and against immigrants. In March 2012, the Court of Appeal overturned a 2011 local court ruling that would have allowed foreign household workers, like other foreigners in Hong Kong, to apply for permanent residency after seven years of uninterrupted stay. Labor rights groups pledged to take the case to the Court of Final Appeal.

Hong Kong maintains its own immigration system, but periodic denials of entry to democracy activists, Falun Gong practitioners, and others have raised suspicions that the government enforces a Beijing-imposed political blacklist, particularly at sensitive times. The government does not control travel, choice of residence, or employment within Hong Kong, but documents are required to travel to the mainland, and employers must apply to bring in workers from China; direct applications from workers are not accepted. In 2012, the immigration department continued to delay a work visa for outspoken mainland journalist Chang Ping. Observers reported that while replies are typically obtained within four weeks, Chang had not received a response over a year after submitting his application.

Public resentment has increased regarding the growing trend of mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong, often with the aim of accessing its advanced welfare system or skirting China’s one-child policy. Hundreds of such women were prosecuted for overstaying visas during 2012, and thousands were barred from entering, though tens of thousands of babies are reportedly born to mainland women in Hong Kong each year.

Women in Hong Kong are protected by law from discrimination and abuse, and they are entitled to equal access to schooling and to property in divorce settlements. However, they continue to face discrimination in employment opportunities, salary, inheritance, and welfare. Only 11 out of the 70 Legco members are women, and all of the judges on the Court of Final Appeal are men. Despite robust government efforts, Hong Kong remains a source, destination, and transit point for human trafficking linked to sexual exploitation and forced labor.

2013 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating


Civil Liberties


Political Rights